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Size Matters (Tackling A Faust 2006 Double Magnum)

Vinted on March 10, 2010 binned in commentary, learning wine, wine tips

Just when you think that the topic of wine is starting to make sense and really come together for you, you’ll probably encounter the convention of naming large format wine bottles.

That should put you firmly back in your lowly place, since the convention of naming bottle sizes carries on the storied wine tradition of utilizing differing standards in order to confuse the living hell out of you.

I’ve been “thinking big,” as in large format bottles, since I recently won a 3L bottle of Faust 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet via the Palate Press Wine For Haiti auction.

The bottle is gorgeous (see inset pic), and it’s basically a Valentine’s Day gift for my wife, to be opened at our 10 or 15 year anniversary party (probably the 10… we’re not very patient).  The trouble is, I don’t know what to call it.

Before we get into that, I should tell you a bit about Faust itself, I suppose.

Faust is the brainchild of Napa legend Agustin Huneeus, who started up Quintessa, owns Veramonte, and had a hand in making other stalwart Napa wines like Franciscan.  It’s a big wine, but balanced and tight as a drum early on due to it’s massive, dark structure.  It’s like the Darth Vader of Napa Cabs, and is (more or less) Quintessa’s more-affordable-but-still-pretty-damned-good “second wine.” Damned-good… Get it?  Faust… damned… Ok, I’ll stop now…

As far as the 2006 goes, it’s 77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot, 3% Malbec, and 1% Cabernet Franc – all from Agustin’s family vineyards in Rutherford and Atlas Peak.  As far as Hunees goes, according to the Faust website, “He also believes that numerical ratings, as they are used today, are an aberration.”  Strong words.

Interestingly (as far as the bottle size discussion goes), I first tried this Faust vintage (via sample) in a 375 ml half-bottle.  I’ve yet to have the wine from a “normal” 750 ml.

Anyway, on to the good and the ugly of this situation…

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Home To Roast (Slow Cookin’ and Wine Pairin’)

Vinted on November 26, 2009 binned in holidays, wine tips

So much turkey talk when it comes to wine this time of year, and yet so little talk of the turkey.

What I mean is, for all of the holiday wine pairing help that we can find this time of year, very little of it actually centers around The Bird. The culinary hub & spoke in the wheel of our holiday meals, so-to-speak.

Which is understandable, because the turkey, while usually sitting at the center of our holiday table and taking up the majority of our cooking prep. time, is actually the side show when it comes to most Thanksgiving meals.

The real stars of the act, in wine pairing terms, are the varied side dishes that run the gamut of tastes from savory to sweet, along with the varying taste preferences of the dinner guests. In other words, when it comes to holiday meals you should drink whatever wine you like, because the situation (when it comes to finding an all-purpose wine pairing, that is) is pretty much hopeless (it may also be hopeless because of the company, but that’s your problem).

But… what is a culinary adventurer to do when the slow-roasted bird is actually the focus of a meal? I’m talking about a chicken or turkey spending almost all day slow-roasting to perfection, to be accompanied not by show-stealing sweet yams but by less robust side-item fare meant to place the dining spotlight on the bird itself.

What do we pair with that?

The answer (at least, my answer) might surprise you…

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Who’s Afraid of Big Bad Brett?

Vinted on September 11, 2008 binned in commentary, wine tips, winemaking


If you’re talking Brett as in Brett Favre, then not me – I’m a Steelers fan, baby!

If you’re talking Brett as in the yeast Brettanomyces, then that’s a different story entirely. Lots of wine folks are scared of that puppy. And with pretty good reason – chances are that if you’ve ever had red wine, you’ve run into Brett. And unlike the Steelers rushing, hurrying and sacking the other big, bad Brett, when you run into brettanomyces, it’s you that could be the one on the wrong side of that meeting…

The trouble with brett is that it’s not all bad (although the jury is still out in the wine world on this one). In small enough amounts, brett creates compounds that potentially add interesting complexity to a wine, with smokey, spicy elements (yum!). Too much brett, and you have reduced fruit aromas, and wine reminiscent of medicine, Band-Aids, and stinky barnyards (yuck!)


Like a boring dinner guest, brett is notoriously difficult to get rid of. (Crap, did I just end a sentence in a preposition?). It’s been found lodged deep into the staves of new oak barrels (one of its favorite hideouts), to the point where no cleaning will ever get it out. And it can basically chill out in a dormant state for long periods of time until it finds food (in the wine) – and it doesn’t need much food to get its party started.

What’s a winemaker to do?

Well, there are plenty of cleaning techniques that help the situation, and some winemakers will carefully rack and test their wines at each stage of the winemaking process to minimize the impact of brett on their finished wines.

But there is something else that they can do to minimize brett. The trouble is, it goes against conventional marketing wisdom in the chase for high-scoring wines on the hundred-point wine scale!

They can harvest their grapes earlier.

According to a recent article on Sommelier Journal magazine, harvesting grapes earlier reduces the pH levels, which brett doesn’t like. Lower pH levels also help to make anti-brett initiatives (like using sulfer dioxide) more effective.

The trouble is, if you harvest earlier, your grapes can’t achieve the raisin-like ripeness and high alcohol extremes favored by some point-giving wine critics out there.

Just sayin’.

Reduce Band-Aid action, and increase the amount of lower-alcohol, elegant red wines available in the marketplace? Hmmm… I’m sooooo in on that, baby!
Cheers!
(images: maximumgrilledsteelers.com, vignaioli.it, jackstrawspizza.com)

Bitterness in White Wines (No… Really!)

Vinted on August 30, 2008 binned in wine tips
I run into this situation at a lot of wine tasting events:

We’re trying white wines, and one of the tasters gets a look on their face as if they just sucked down one of those Altoids lemon sours. The kind that are so bitter, they make you feel as though you will suck out your brains through the insides of your cheeks, and spit them out shorty after you jettison the candy from your mouth at upwards of 200 mph.

“This wine tastes bitter. Why is that?”

This is usually followed by a statement from me that starts with “Astringency…” and ends quickly with “…soooooo, let’s move onto our next wine…” in order to prevent me from looking like I’ve got no idea what I’m talking about.

Explaining bitterness in red wines is fairly simple: red wines contain tannins, and almost every wine drinker knows that tannins (especially in young wines) impart a sometimes bitter, often gum-drying quality. Tannins come primarily from the skin contact that makes red wines, well, red. White wines typically don’t undergo too much (if any) contact with grape skins when they’re made. Sure, sometimes oak aging can impart tannins in white wines, but usually not enough to make them bitter.

So, what gives?

At a recent wine geek tasting party, my geeky friends and I discussed the very topic. And one of those geeks knows a guy, who knows a guy, who knows some people.

Important people. Dangerous people.

Well, not really dangerous, but people who have dangerous levels of wine guru knowledge. Like, for example, Jancis Robinson, one of the premier wine authorities in the known universe.

Now, before I get into Jancis’ (and others’) answer on the question of what makes some white wines bitter, we need to take a little side trip to the “She Blinded Me With Science” Department. Because when it comes to wines, you can’t talk about the nitty-gritty of flavors and bitterness without talking phenols. And you can’t talk phenols without talking science….

She Blinded Me With SCIENCE!!!

Just like you and me, wine is made mostly of water. It also has a good portion of alcohol floating around in there (just like me.. but maybe not just like you). The 5% or so left over are the chemicals (well over 900 in some cases) that make wine, well, wine. Because wine is made from grapes, it picks up chemicals from the skins, seeds, and stems of grapes called phenols. Phenols interact with other molecules in the wine, and those interactions help to define the taste, color, and body of a wine. When you taste bitterness and astringency in red wine, it’s likely you’re tasting phenols. Since the chemical reactions in wine can change over time (for example, when phenols interact with the small amount of oxygen present in the wine bottle), so can a wine’s tastes. This, in part, explains why a wine is often said to “mellow out” and become less bitter and softer in mouthfeel over time – thanks, in part to phenols.

Still with me? OK, so how does this tie into bitterness in white wines? What makes some white wines bitter for Pete’s sake??…


I’ve got three answers to that question, from three separate Masters of Wine, all of which are different but technically correct! Let’s decode each one:

1) According to Julia Harding, MW: “Aromatic compounds called terpenes, particularly important in aromatic varieties such as Gewürztraminer, Muscat and Riesling (but also in the aromas of flowers), are said to contribute to bitterness. Their concentration is greater in very ripe grapes and the effect is likely to be more marked when grapes have been pressed less gently or after ill-judged skin contact.”

Translation: If the wine gets a bit too much poorly-timed skin contact (from squishing the juice out too roughly, or from deliberately giving the juice contact with the grapes skins but at the wrong time), you might end up with some bitter white wine – especially if the grapes were very ripe at harvest. Terpenes can also be imparted from oak contact, so too much oak contact could also be the culprit.

2) Pancho Campo, MW‘s answer:

“IBMP (isobutylmethoxypyrazines) are frequently regarded by numerous authors as responsible for the herbaceous character and bitterness of certain wines. IBMP are compounds found in grapes that have not achieved a correct level of phenolic ripeness.”

Translation: The grapes weren’t ripe enough when the wine was made. This allowed the introduction of those IBMPs, without the right amount of flavor, etc. to counterbalance the ‘greeness’.

3) And from the irrepressible Jancis Robinson herself:

“Excessive phenolic extraction is the usual explanation for bitterness.”

Translation: Too much phenol action, baby. Either from mistake or from the winemaker gettin’ a little too greedy, someone was trying to extract the maximum amount of flavor from their grapes – but they went overboard. Whoops – hello Mr. Bitter!

There you go – now, off to impress the guests at your next wine party with your wine chemistry smarties…

For more wine chemistry geek knowledge, I recommend the Oxford Companion to Wine.

Cheers!
(images: time-inc.net, wikimedia.org)

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